Sunday, April 26, 2015

Review - Cinderella

Traditionalists can be forgiven for continually scoffing at Walt Disney Pictures for their current habit of repurposing their most beloved animated classics into money-sponging live-action productions. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Alice in Wonderland have already fallen victim to the artistically dubious Mirror Mirror, Maleficent and Tim Burton's unspeakable 2010 eyesore, with plans afoot for everything from Beauty and the Beast to Dumbo to Winnie the Pooh.
This year's episode of 'remake musical chairs' is none other than Cinderella.

Purists' initial reaction may be to cringe and look away, but with the right tone in the right directorial hands (in this case, the aptly theatrical Kenneth Branagh), who's to say that these relics can't be improved, even if only mildly?
While Walt's 1950 hit about the woebegone dreamer with the glass slippers may be remembered as a classic, it's sometimes misremembered as 'good' classic.
Truth is, it simply does not hold up to modern scrutiny, proving to be more Tom & Jerry cartoon than cinematic achievement, and only peripherally about its titular maiden. If any of Disney's dusty animated properties was due for a refurbishing,
it was this one.

The idyllic prologue starts off well earlier than most modern versions of this worn out story usually bother, elucidating the mirthful childhood of an infinitely good-natured little girl named Ella. Living with her parents and a barnyard full of friendly animals, Ella is never at a loss for love and affection, which she receives and gives in equal measure.

We know, of course, that the good times are not to last. Ella's mother (Haley Atwell) passes away, but not before imparting a final lesson to her daughter: "Be brave, and be kind." Years pass, Ella grows into as lovely a young woman as any storybook can concoct (Downtown Abbey's Lily James), and Ella's father (Ben Chaplin) remarries with her sincere blessing.
His new wife, the Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), though beautiful enough, is not the catch that his first wife was. She and her two daughters (the hilariously catty Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) treat Ella less like a new family member than an unwanted dinner guest, and demote her to scullery maid when her father eventually dies as well.

Though any other sane person would pack up and evacuate such dire straits, Ella's devotion to her late parents' home, and more importantly to her mother's deathbed wisdom, compels her to dutifully obey her stepfamily's abusive commands. It's in this characterization that a marked improvement is made over not only the Disney original, but over any other screen interpretation of the character I can recall.

Even when forced to cheerily converse with CG mice – whose inclusion is a quaint miscalculation, as far as miscalculations go – James is never less than completely and winningly earnest. Judged against past incarnations of this notoriously flat heroine, James' Cinderella has more depth and humanity in her little finger than most Cinderellas do in their whole bodies.

How encouraging it is to see understated traits like courage, kindness, and forgiveness depicted as heroic qualities.
Even our villain is given a more empathetic treatment than villains usually receive in such bedtime stories, evidenced in a marvelously staged scene in which Blanchett offers us an oblique glimpse into the root of Lady Tremaine's cruelty towards Ella.

Branagh's actorly attention to such unspoken detail helps add new shades to a tale so familiar that there's no way the he could hold us in any kind of narrative suspense. In fact, rather than trick out the film with post-modern revisionism (à la Mirror Mirror or Maleficent or Alice), Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz have hewn quite closely to the letter and spirit of their source material; The film is better off for it.

Everything takes on a magical, larger-than-life quality that defines this fable as fantasy well before the fairy godmother (an overly anachronistic Helena Bonham Carter) shows up to pollute the pumpkin patch with magic spells and overcooked effects. Branagh's plentiful crane shots and ubiquitous use of music are a special enough effect on their own, though even he employs them a tad too liberally.
His tendency to theatricalize every moment somewhat dilutes the set pieces that aught to feel uniquely heightened – such as the swoon-worthy palace ball – and overemphasizes moments that could have benefited from less stylization. All the better for showing off the ornate, floral motifs of Dante Ferretti's sets and Sandy Powell's costumes I suppose, for which they must surely be considered early Oscar favourites.

Just like Ella at the ball, it's easy for us to get swept up in the magic of the moment, if only for an hour or two. But when the credits roll, and our carriages revert back to sedans, and our gorgeous butterfly-studded gowns shrivel back into the ragged garb of the common moviegoer, we're reminded that we've essentially seen a feature-length advertisement for a corporate studio with no original ideas left in their stable.

**1/2 out of ****

1 comment:

  1. The live-action remakes follow the "nothing new under the sun" motif and some of them were better than others. I personally was able to enjoy Alice in Wonderland and Oz: The Great and Powerful (I consider that a remake even though The Wizard of Oz was not originally a Disney film) amidst their flaws, but the others, not so much. Cinderella was one of the few original Disney films I was not a fan of. It's cute in its own right, but I don't know. Maybe 'cause I'm a stupid male, but whatever it is, I wasn't over the moon with it, and this reimagining looks nice in and of itself, but I think I'll just have to wait until it comes out in home video.

    Also, yay for first Awards Nazi review of 2015. Let's hope this becomes another solid year in film!